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Lords reverse hunting bill

"Freedom in my view is a precious thing. You have to want freedom, very, very badly.

You have to want freedom badly enough to allow two men to walk down a road, holding hands and kissing. You have to want freedom badly enough to watch British Muslims burn a Union flag and you have to want freedom badly enough to allow people to get on to horses and hunt."

- Lord Alli speaking in the House of Lords Debate on Hunting

TEMPERS FLARED when peers in the House of Lords yet again overturned Labour’s marathon attempt to ban foxhunting. Ministers and Tory peers hurled abuse at each other across the dispatch box as the Upper House inflicted a series of defeats on the troubled Hunting Bill. In a cross-party assault, Labour’s Baroness Mallalieu, president of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance, and the Tory Lord Mancroft won overwhelming backing for their amendments to allow licensed hunting to continue.

Peers voted 261 to 49 for a system of regulated hunting. As the debate grew heated, Lord Whitty of Camberwell, the Government’s Rural Affairs minister in the Lords, became embroiled in a furious row with a senior Tory peer. In a last ditch effort to avoid a defeat, the minister announced that even though it was a free vote the Government was recommending that the Lords did not accept the changes proposed by Lady Mallalieu. This itself prompted cries of outrage from the assembled peers.

Lord Whitty made it clear that the Government was sticking to its manifesto pledge to allow the Commons to decide the matter, hinting at the possible use of the Parliament Act to steamroller a ban onto the statute books.

Lord Whitty added: "Because of that background and because of the decisions of the House of Commons and the attitude that this House has hitherto taken and the amendments which are before us, which are in effect attempting to substitute an alternative view, I am not going to recommend to this House that we accept any amendments at all."

Conservative peer Lord Onslow, attacked the decision, saying: "I don’t think in all my time in this House ever heard a more arrogant disregard to people’s views. It is second rate and shows how low this Government has now fallen."

His comments were echoed by a number of peers from around the chamber, but Lord Whitty tried to defend the Government’s stance by saying that the "rather unique circumstances" demanded the approach.

The debate heard an impassioned defence of hunting from the Labour peer Lord Alli who said: "Freedom in my view is a precious thing. You have to want freedom, very, very badly.

You have to want freedom badly enough to allow two men to walk down a road, holding hands and kissing. You have to want freedom badly enough to watch British Muslims burn a Union flag and you have to want freedom badly enough to allow people to get on to horses and hunt."

Lord Renton of Mount Harry decried the Government’s Bill as being based on prejudice, saying: "I think that this Bill is entirely based on prejudice. I think it has precious little to do with the fox, or whether it is killed in the most cruel or the least cruel way. It is based on the prejudice of believing that those who follow a hunt are simply doing so, as toffs in pink coats with top hats and looking pretty funny, in order to get pleasure out of killing for fun.

"That is an absurd misconception, but it is a prejudiced belief that is held by a number of people who live in the cities and towns. It is clearly held by some 300 Labour MPs who were willing to overthrow the contents of a Bill that was put forward by their own Minister in order to vote for the total banning of hunting, as described in the Bill that we had before us before we amended it tonight. This is simply prejudice and in that opinion I am supported by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, who also put his name to these amendments but who is not in his place at the moment.

In an extremely good article in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, 8th October 2003, which I would recommend your Lordships to read, he states:

"A law supported by a majority will still be considered illegitimate by a minority if it lacks moral or rational justification. We do not accept the right of Parliament to pass any law, even if the majority wants it . . . In a complex, modern society such as Britain, which is full of minorities doing things of which majorities disapprove—in which the very concept of a "majority" is doubtful—laws must be backed by reason as well as by votes. Here is the problem. The pro-banning movement is based entirely on prejudice".

That is a very fair statement by a Cross-Bencher who, as far as I know, has never hunted in his life."

Lord Renton added: "Where do we go from here? Foxes are vermin. They are not an endangered species. They have to be killed and killing by hounds is the quickest, most efficient and most certain way of doing that."

Lord Stoddart of Swindon back Lord Renton on the issue of prejudice and warned of the threat to domestic dogs chasing animals, thanks to the main thrust of the Bill making it an offence to do so: "I fear that he (Lord Renton) is right; namely, that it is a Bill borne out of prejudice. That is very dangerous. Prejudice against a minority has no part in decent democratic legislation. The problem is, once one Bill has been passed as an act of prejudice, exactly where will it stop?

"Let us look at the history of this Bill, which we touched on earlier. The Labour Party manifesto stated that a Bill to ban fox hunting would be introduced into the Commons and would be put before Parliament. As I mentioned earlier, that Bill to ban fox hunting has now become a Bill to ban the hunting with dogs of all wild animals. Beagle hunting is to be banned, as is any form of hunting with dogs. Already, through prejudice, we have expanded the Labour Party commitment that was put before the electorate and on which the electorate voted. So the Government and the House of Commons have taken liberties with the mandate they were granted. They were granted a mandate to ban fox hunting, but in fact they have sought to ban virtually everything to do with hunting with dogs—including even preventing people chasing foxes out of their gardens in our towns and villages."

Lord Stoddart went on to state that other country pursuits would be under threat if hunting were banned: "Where do we go from here? There are people who are already intimidating fishermen on our riverbanks because they do not believe that wild fish should be caught on the hook. Sooner or later, are we to see a ban imposed on angling? Martin Salter, my MP in Reading, voted for this Bill, but he is a keen angler. He needs to watch out, because there are some who seek to ban angling.

"Many people certainly want to ban shooting. They do not believe that pheasant, partridge and snipe should be bred and then released into the air for people to shoot at with pellets from a shotgun. They think that that is cruel. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is in his place. I believe that he has a number of stags on his estate. Many people would like to prevent him and many others shooting stags. Finally, there are many people who believe that the Grand National is cruel. So where are we going to stop?

"Perhaps it sounds a little far-fetched, but some 50 years ago, a Labour Government would not have dreamed of introducing a Bill to ban hunting. They would have believed that to be completely wrong and an interference with the rights of people to pursue a sporting activity that they had enjoyed for over 300 years. Clement Attlee would not have dreamed of introducing such a Bill."

Anti-hunting MPs will undoubtedly overturn the defeats when the Bill returns to the Commons, but it is more likely to run out of time in the Lords before the end of the session and ministers are already drawing up a range of options to resurrect it.

It is widely expected that the Government will reintroduce the Bill in the Queen’s Speech on November 26 and invoke the Parliament Act to force it through. However, they fear that the Lords could insist on debating it in full one last time, even though it will be enacted whatever they do.

Government business managers have admitted that this tactic is a "huge weapon" in the Tory opponents’ hands because it will distract time from other Government Bills and possibly even put in jeopardy key legislation, for example on pensions and university top-up fees.

l According to a poll conducted by the Countryside Alliance, only 40 Labour peers, 20% of the total number of Labour peers, supported the Government's Hunting Bill during last week's Committee Stage debate in the House of Commons.

In the vote to reinstate the Government's original licensing system into the Bill, which was amended to ban all hunting in the Commons, the other 156 Labour peers either backed the amendment or abstained.

The licensing amendment was passed by 261 votes to 49. Discounting those hereditary peers who voted the amendment would still have been carried by a majority of 147.
In the two votes in the Lords and the Commons 366 parliamentarians backed a ban but 406 supported a licensing system.

Simon Hart, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, said: "No Government Bill in living memory has had as little support from its own party as this Hunting Bill. If only 20% of Labour peers could be persuaded to support the ban passed in the Commons there can be no justification for wasting more Parliamentary time pursuing a ban.

"The will of Parliament is clear - a majority of parliamentarians want the Government to honour its commitment to reach a conclusion to the hunting issue based on principle and evidence through a workable licensing system".

Hunting bill to make a comeback, perhaps?

CONFUSION REIGNS as to whether or not the Government will reintroduce its controversial Hunting Bill in the next session of Parliament and risk a showdown with the House of Lords over threatened delays to flagship legislation.

Some 32 Bills have been short listed for the next session, the final list of which will decided by the Cabinet in the next three weeks. The widely expected resurrection of the hunting Bill remains in doubt. The Bill will be kept off the list unless ministers can find a way to avoid a showdown with the Lords which could plunge all the other Bills into crisis after peers threatened a "scorched earth’ policy over all Government Legislation.

Government business managers have told Mr Blair that if legislation to ban hunting is included in the Queen’s Speech on November 26, peers will insist on debating it until they have put in jeopardy almost everything else in the Prime Minister’s legislative programme. Important measures on pensions, university top-up fees, baby bonds, child protection and mental health could all fall by the wayside. Business managers point out that the 92 hereditary peers, whose seats are to be abolished under the Lords Reform Bill, also in the Queen’s Speech, will have nothing to lose by debating a further attempt to ban hunting until other Bills run out of time. Government attempts to ban hunting suffered what appeared to be a potentially terminal blow last week when legislation passing through the House of Lords was lost because of a lack of parliamentary time.

Ministers were confident, however, that the Bill would be reintroduced in the Queen’s speech. If peers block the legislation again, ministers plan to use the Parliament Act to force the measure through.

A senior minister said: "There is a lot of pressure on us to reintroduce the Bill and use the Parliament Act. It is likely that will happen."

A close adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair added: "Tony regards it as a trust issue now."
The legislation, as originally drafted, allowed regulated licensed foxhunting but banned stag hunting and hare coursing. That was overturned in June when backbench Labour MPs introduced amendments calling for a total ban. This was opposed by peers, creating a parliamentary impasse that resulted in the Bill's failure in the House of Lords last week.

One option available to the Government, however, is to invoke a little known and previously unused parliamentary method to get a new hunting Bill through. Ministers are considering enlisting the help of a backbench anti-hunting Labour MP, such as left-winger Tony Banks, to invoke the Parliament Act, rather than leaving it to the Government. If the Lords objected, they would be explicitly opposing the will of MPs rather than of ministers, which would be constitutionally indefensible and would rob the Lords of the excuse that they are debating the Bill at length in order to hold the Government to account.

Business managers are also considering a Private Member’s Bill on hunting, which would not be debated in government time, and leaving hunting out of the Queen’s Speech. However, this is likely to infuriate backbench anti-hunting Labour MPs and could lead to them removing their support for controversial Government legislation such as Foundation Hospitals and University top-up fees.

Whichever way Mr Blair turns, he is facing a major problem next session. One Parliamentary inside said: "There is now a chance that hunting might not be in the Queen's Speech."

The main themes of the Queen’s speech will be equality, security, and modernisation, although this patently does not extend to the rights of rural people to hunt. Peter Hain, the Leader of the House of Commons indicated that he was determined to push through anti-hunting legislation in the next session.

In an interview with Sky News’s Sunday with Adam Boulton programme he made clear that the Government was determined to act. "We have seen the most flagrant abuse of the House of Lords’ power to destroy a Bill, massively voted for in the House of Commons and successively endorsed in our general election manifestoes," he said.

Mr Hain did not say whether any new legislation would involve a total ban on hunting with hounds. The latest Bill, as originally drafted, would have allowed regulated and licensed foxhunting to continue while outlawing stag hunting and hare-coursing. However, in June, Labour backbenchers pushed through a series of amendments in the Commons which would have imposed a total ban.

Lord Mancroft, a Tory peer and a director of the Countryside Alliance, warned that pro-hunt supporters would take legal action to challenge the use of the Parliament Act as "unconstitutional" if ministers pressed ahead.

"The government spinners are trying to blame the failure of the Bill on Tory toffs. It is outrageous and totally unsustainable."

Lord Mancroft added: "I would give up my hereditary seat just to save foxhunting but I would not give up foxhunting to save my hereditary seat. I won't give up my seat in the Lords until the hunting Bill is defeated."

Lord Donoughue, a Labour peer and former agriculture minister, backed Lord Mancroft’s view, saying: "The idea that the hunting ban ran into the sand because of the Tory toffs is absolute balls. The Government cannot get Labour support for it in the Lords."

Both Lords were speaking at a lunch in London at the weekend at they joined the Labour’s Lady Mallalieu in rejecting claims by the Government that the Lords had deliberately blocked the Bill at the committee stage.

Tony Banks, the Labour MP for West Ham and a former sports minister, insisted that the demonstrations would not prevent a ban. He said in his characteristic football terrace style: "The pro-hunt campaigners will be stuffed."

Thousands sign pro-hunting ‘disobedience pledge’

ALTHOUGH LAST Saturday, November 1st marked the traditional first day of the hunting season, many hunts have been cancelled in favour of a series of mass rallies across the country, writes Nick Mays.

Mass rallies yesterday marked the start of the new hunting season, which could be one of the last. At Worcester Lodge, Badminton, 1,000 signatures supporting hunting, even if it is made illegal, were collected in 45 minutes.

Ultimately, 37,000 of the most law abiding people in Britain pledged to peacefully disobey any unjust law banning hunting, and to submit themselves to trial and punishment.

From Trimdon to Tonbridge, and from Honiton to Ipswich, tens of thousands of hunting activists signed the Hunting Declaration at 12 mass meets on the day of the traditional start of the hunting season.

Simon Hart, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, speaking from the gathering in Newbury, said: "Today 37,000 people who would never normally consider breaking the law, and who desperately do not want to have to disobey a potential hunting ban, have made a serious and solemn commitment. It is time for those politicians whose prejudiced and unfounded attacks on hunting have led us to this point to question whether they can continue to justify their obsessive pursuit of a ban.

"Civil disobedience is a very serious step, and breaking the law is wrong, but in the case of patently unjust legislation which ignores evidence and principle we believe that someone who has examined their conscience, and is satisfied that what they are doing is not inherently wrong, has a social right to draw attention to injustice by openly breaking the law. Provided that is that they meet their obligations to society by submitting themselves to trial and punishment."

Capt Ian Farquhar, the joint master of the Beaufort Hunt, with which the Prince of Wales and his sons have ridden, said that the rallies were sending a "very simple message" that the Hunting Bill was unjust.

"There is a very, very large section of the community who know the facts and aren't going to put up with it," he said.

Last month Derek Pearce, a magistrate and member of the Beaufort, said that he would resign if laws banning hunting were introduced.